City Council approves new lodgers tax bonds

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The city intends to proceed with a major overhaul at Los Altos Park, construction of a new multiuse soccer venue and an entire program of other athletic- and tourism-related projects around the city – although elected officials say it may not be too late to adjust the plan.

The City Council late Monday approved spending $30.5 million on a sports tourism package that upgrades and creates facilities throughout the city, accepting much of a proposal introduced last month by Mayor Tim Keller.

The vote came over the objections of the local hotel industry, which generates the taxes that will pay for the projects.

The 120-member Greater Albuquerque Hotel and Lodging Association had requested additional time to evaluate the merits of the program, a recommendation supported by the city’s Lodgers Tax Advisory Board.

Leaders of both the lodging association and tax advisory board said they did not know about the sports tourism proposal – which will be paid for with $29 million in new lodgers tax bonds, plus $1.5 million in so-called “surplus” funds – until Keller publicly announced the details last month.

The city’s finance officials and bond counsel had urged a quick bond sale due to favorable market conditions, and the City Council voted unanimously Monday to issue the new lodgers tax bonds.

The council took a separate vote to approve the associated list of projects, but some council members said Monday that it is possible to fine-tune the ideas and that they would seek more input from the Lodgers Tax Advisory Board and hospitality industry. Councilor Diane Gibson apologized to the advisory board members and the lodging industry, saying they had been “overlooked” in the decision-making process.

“I think you were done a disservice, and I apologize for that,” she said. “I wish we’d done that differently, but I would hope you could look at what we end up with here this evening and make your own recommendations, so we could look at them and consider them in a future amendment.”

The lodging association and the tax advisory board leadership both spoke in favor of increasing the amount of bond proceeds going to the Albuquerque Convention Center.

The council ultimately approved $4.5 million for the venue, up from $3 million originally outlined by Keller, and some councilors said there could be opportunities for more help later.

“We can go to the Legislature and continue to look within our own budget,” Councilor Isaac Benton said of the convention center. “It’s certainly a priority for me.”

Greater Albuquerque Hotel and Lodging Association President Michelle Dressler said she did not expect the council to delay a vote due to the advice of the bond counsel.

But, she said, “We’re going to keep pushing to get what the convention center needs. It’s the conventions that bring higher (overnight expenditures), and that really helps provide our lodgers tax.”

The plan includes $10 million for Los Altos – including renovated softball fields and a new BMX pump track – $3.5 million for a new multifield soccer complex at an undetermined site and $3 million for improvements at the city’s West Side baseball complex, such as a new field and shade structures.

Several people spoke in favor of the improvements to Los Altos, saying they had the potential to make the park at Lomas and Eubank NE a magnet for tournaments and competitive bike riders.

“With our awesome summer and fall weather, Albuquerque could become a mecca for softball,” said Tom Shoemaker, a local softball league organizer.

The bond proceeds will also fund improvements at Isotopes Park ($1 million), a new Downtown connecting path ($2 million), the purchase of a new indoor track ($2.5 million) and property for balloon landing sites ($2.5 million). It also includes $500,000 for a “Northwest Mesa gateway” in Councilor Cynthia Borrego’s district.

Borrego said it is “envisioned to include an art piece and a small park” akin to the gateway at Tramway and Central, though there is no site, budget or design yet.

The council decided on Monday to supplement the lodgers tax bond proceeds with another $1.5 million in “surplus” money – most of it going to a planned visitor center on West Central, despite one member’s question about why the city was not spending that money on priorities such as first responders.

The city has $4.8 million in surplus funding, which comes through the sale of vehicles and other property, according to Municipal Development Director Pat Montoya.

“Why can we not use that for police cars and police equipment, which we’re in dire need of, as we are with fire equipment? … Why do we not use that for something we know we need every day?” Councilor Trudy Jones asked before listing a series of concerns she has about the planning and what she called the growing “magnitude” of the Route 66 Visitor Center.

Councilor Ken Sanchez – who co-sponsored the amendment that allocated the surplus dollars to the Route 66 Visitor Center – said the council has historically acted responsibly with those funds and could still apply some to police vehicles.

“We’ve been very cautious and very diligent in the money we have spent, so I think we will do so again this year,” he said.

And Councilor Klarissa Peña – who has cited the Route 66 Visitor Center as one of her priorities – defended the center as important to a community that she said has not received much city support.

“It would become an economic driver, and it would be something people could have pride in; people from the southwest area of Albuquerque would have somewhere to actually be able to have meeting space, to be able to have a venue – we literally have to cross the river in order to be able to have, whether it be a wedding or the like – this is something that the community has worked on for … almost 20 years,” she said.

The project is expected to cost almost $13 million, and the city has allocated about $3 million and has another $1 million included in the general obligation bonds on November’s ballot. The county and state have also made contributions.

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